The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

A Stone For Sarah

By Shawn Stewart © 1996

Issue: Spring, 1996

Jesse carried the heavy stone of marble to a grave site in the middle of the almost forgotten cemetery. Upon sitting the stone at its head, he took a red kerchief from his pocket and wiped the sweat from his brow. When the stone was placed near perfect in the ground, he watched as Hannah arranged flowers on the grave. As he looked into her hazel eyes, he could see once again that beautiful young girl he had married so long ago.

In August of 1947, twenty year old Jesse married Hannah, who lacked one month being fifteen. One year later, they had their first child, Bobby, a boy.

The young couple, along with Bobby, lived in the upstairs of a two-story, four room house which was located in a small rural coal mining town in Southeastern Kentucky. With two rooms per floor, a kitchen and a sleeping area, the house had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing. In any case, they were content with what they had because it was all they could afford.

By 1950, Hannah was once again pregnant. Jesse remembered that by then he had a job driving a bus for the local high school with a salary of forty dollars per month. He was very lucky to have a job for any work, other than coal mining, was very hard to find.

He felt if he were to pursue a career in the coal industry, he would be forced to retire like the elder miners did. They were unable to continue work and support their families because of their deadly coughing disease of which Jesse was horrified of contracting.

Suddenly, Jesse began coughing harshly. Hannah raised her head, her eyes full of concern, wondering if he was all right. Jesse then pulled from his pocket his kerchief and wiped his mouth.

"Jesse," Hannah replied, "you really should have that checked out by the doctor."

Jesse, stuffing his kerchief back into his pocket, replied, "You never needed a doctor and neither do I. Besides, it's nothing just a simple cough."

Hannah shook her head and continued her work, arranging flowers on the grave. She thought about what Jesse had said about her not needing a doctor. She never needed a doctor because neither could afford one. But, she did remember one time when she was very glad to see a doctor.

Hannah could remember when she seemed to be having some problems with her pregnancy. Instead of kicking, like most babies did, her baby simply shivered. Hannah's sister, too, was pregnant and other than scaring her, she would say, "Oh, don't worry. That's normal." But by her seventh month, more complications appeared. Hannah's hands and feet would swell and her maternity clothes began to fit loosely.

In late November, a doctor paid Hannah a visit. He took her temperature and asked if she had been having any problems. She explained to him about how the baby, instead of kicking, would shiver and how her hands and feet would swell.

The doctor, after placing the stethoscope on her stomach exclaimed in a frightened voice, "I can not hear a heartbeat!" But, he immediately assured Hannah that everything was fine and he just needed different equipment to make a better judgment.

Hannah was very frightened herself at this even though he assured her everything was all right. She was only eighteen, but she was well aware of what she might have to face.

Possibly to raise Hannah's confidence, the doctor gave her some type of medication, so that, he said, when he returned he may be able to tell more about her baby's condition. After taking her medicine, she would rock in her chair in the makeshift living room of their two room dwelling. She would then play back those feared chilling notes of the doctor or pray for her child's health while watching the fall winds seemingly sweep the vivid Kentucky mountainside of life.

Hannah watched Jesse as he admired the mountainous surroundings and said, "Do you remember the day Sarah was born?"

Jesse turned momentarily to accept her question and then returned to his sight-seeing. Finally, with an abrupt grunt, he answered, "Yep," of course he remembered! This long awaited time had finally arrived, however, somewhat early to him, with three echoing words.

"Jesse, it's time!", exclaimed Hannah as she began gasping for air. "Get the doctor and tell him the baby's comin""

Jesse remembered, at that remark, he sleepily fumbled around the dark room searching for his pants and shirt. The floor which was very cold on his feet hurried him that much more. All was dark. Jesse guessed by this that it was early morning. But, he had more important things to worry about instead of the time, because Hannah was in labor. Hannah's mother, Claire, who was an experienced mid-wife, was staying with them at the time. Jesse knew if he didn't return with the doctor in time, Claire could deliver the baby. Finally, he was all dressed and ready to leave. But, once Jesse opened the door, he was pushed back in by the sharp winter wind. Seven inches of snow had fallen over the night making the wind cold and making for rough travel. But Jesse, knowing Hannah's condition, threw on an old, heavy coat and headed out the door.

Jesse remembered treading through the heavy snow to the nearby service station, in order to phone the doctor. From this position, he obtained full visibility of few illuminated beasts sifting through the frozen blanket brought earlier by Jack Frost. As he jerked viciously due to the intense sharp wind, his mind began to wonder as it had during those days of violent battle in the God Forsaken foreign lands. "Will Hannah be alright? What would I do without her? Is my baby gonna' make it?"

After a countless array of horrifying climaxes, the sun's radiance began to cascade over the Virginia mountains. Jesse, being distracted by his fear, could not take the suspense any longer. With one last glance to the end of the frozen lane, he broke into an Olympic yet fearful run toward his awaiting uncertainties.

He remembered walking through the door and seeing Hannah lying on the bed crying with a motionless bundle in her arms. After drawing closer, Jesse realized that bundle was actually his baby daughter, which had not survived the birth. Soon, he too was in tears.

The doctor explained, after his examination, the baby had been dead a few days beforehand, and there was nothing he could do. He also explained to Jesse that by the time he arrived, Claire had already delivered the baby. Jesse, still wondering how the doctor broke his barrier of concentration on the frozen roadway, then asked what name was given to the child. Hannah, her eyes glossy with tears, looked once more upon the still motionless bundle and forcefully expelled the child's name.

Hannah's eyes were fixed upon the name engraved on the cold stone, SARAH. The name of Claire's mother and Hannah's grandmother was given to the still-born child just after her birth. With her eyes upon the grave, Hannah's mind wondered back to the time when her baby was buried.

Jesse's father, a skilled carpenter, built a small coffin for the child and laid in its interior a soft, feather pillow. The pillow and sides were covered with a smooth pink fabric which met with a beautiful white lace that ran along the top of the sides. Claire made a tiny yellow dress for Sarah to wear after she was born. But, with the situation as it was, Hannah remembered telling Claire to put Sarah in the dress so that she may wear it always.

One day after her birth, Sarah's small body was placed in the cold earth without any recognition of her existence. After Sarah's burial, Hannah remembered that she received nothing in the way of a certificate of birth or death. So, lawfully, Sarah never was! Did the still-born child of Hannah exist only in her heart and mind?

Since neither justice of the peace nor preacher would travel to the high ridge where Sarah was laid to rest in the family cemetery Jesse and his father recited a piece from the Bible and prayed over her final resting place to show their love and pay their last respects.

Hannah remembered weeping over the grave and as she did, she noticed that her child's grave had no headstone. Of course, Jesse only made forty dollars per month, not hardly enough to support a family and buy a headstone. But, Jesse promised Hannah that he would buy their child a grave marker, even if it took him forty years.

Hannah raised her head and looked at Jesse. He was sitting on an old stump eating a sandwich she had prepared for him.

With a gleam in her eye she smiled and whispered to herself, "You always made good on your promises."

In 1952, Hannah remembered, Jesse volunteered for the Korean War to better support his family. When he returned, he had no choice but to work in the coal mines. The coal mines were dangerous, but their workers were paid good salaries for their work as Jesse soon discovered. Each week he saved as much as possible from his pay so that he may buy a grave marker for Sarah.

A few years later, Jesse had saved enough money to buy a headstone for his child. But, Hannah was pregnant with her fourth child and the money Jesse saved had to be used for the needs of her baby. However, Jesse continued to save.

Seventeen years later, Bobby, at age twenty-seven, had long been married and moved away. Jesse and Hannah lived in a beautiful two-story home along with their two remaining children, Sue Ann and Marie. Jesse, now working good and receiving better pay, had one less mouth to feed and soon had plenty enough to buy Sarah a long awaited headstone.

However, the Army Corps of Engineers' construction on the new lake completely devastated the road to the family cemetery. Only by the use of a four-wheel drive vehicle could the cemetery be reached. These vehicles cost plenty and Jesse could not afford one. With this, the hopes of Sarah's grave receiving a marker looked grim.

In 1983, Jesse retired from the coal mines. But, a doctor's examination revealed Blacklung, a disease caused by many years of inhaling coal dust. Two years later, with all their children married and moved away, Jesse and Hannah received a large sum of money as the compensation for Jesse's Blacklung. However, it wasn't until 1990 that Jesse was able to buy a four-wheel drive vehicle to travel to the family cemetery.

As Jesse promised, he finally bought Sarah a grave marker. He promised he would buy it even if it took him forty years, and, well, it did. For forty years baby Sarah had rested amongst her relatives whom she never knew, rested there without anything to remind the world who she was or that she even lay there. With Jesse's hard work and dedication, he was able to keep his promise and buy a stone for Sarah.